BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Michael Pink calls Milwaukee his destiny.
His Milwaukee Ballet, he adds, is more than a company; it’s a welcoming and supportive family.
British born and classically trained (he once worked with Rudolf Nureyev), Pink’s outlook has kept him in Cream City for more than 16 years — the longest tenure of any Milwaukee Ballet artistic director — and afforded him world-class dancers who often find their experience so satisfying that they choose to spend much, if not all, of their careers here as well.
“We look for dancers who have something to bring to the family — whether that’s through their unique personality, through their quirky way of moving, their other skills as choreographers, as teachers, as musicians,” says Pink, an open-door kind of leader who proudly maintains a company of equals over the usual stars and corps de ballet. “We like the fact that it’s a sort of conglomerate of really interesting people. No two people are the same, and that’s what makes this company so enjoyable.”
As does Pink’s keen understanding of his resources and audience, a creative philosophy about the true purpose of dance, and a singular devotion to diverse productions, myriad dance styles, near-miraculous production values for the cost, and a cheerful contentment to leave expensive, iconic ballets to Joffrey Ballet and Ballet Chicago, a 90-minute drive south for patrons who crave them. “We would do them beautifully,” Pink says, “but we have to ‘shop’ where we can afford.
“One of the great things about our company is that with limited resources, we do so much more,” he continues. “Joffrey Ballet is about to do a new production, and they’re so excited to have a commissioned score for the first time in 29 years. Well, we’ve had four in the last decade, full-length ballets. This company offers so much more than just a place that is safe and comfortable and secure to work. You can still grow.”
And grow an eager audience.
Pink’s bold, balletic reimaginings of the beloved literary works “Dracula,” “Snow White,” “Peter Pan” and last year’s stellar “Beauty and the Beast” offer the same technical excellence as the classics, but with a “try it, you’ll like it” appeal that has proven a boon for his company.
“Dance does not really have an excuse for saying you can’t tell a complicated story, because it’s dance and you have to have people doing all these variations where they can just show off. That’s a 19th century style of dance,” Pink says. “We believe firmly — and we’ve proven — you can do that. You can get your audience emotionally involved, which is fantastic for people who say, ‘I don’t understand ballet.’ Well, it’s a medium to tell a story. It’s a silent movie.
“As soon as we built these glorious theaters and places where we could really ‘worship’ art, we created barriers that we’re trying now to break down,” Pink continues. “You need no prior knowledge or understanding. You just have to have an emotional human response to what’s in front of you.”
Thus, Pink and his team seek out community-wide collaborations that speak to a broad range of dance fans, knowing that the likelihood of folks finding a moment, a movement, a dancer to bring them back for more is high. Recent partnerships include the company’s recent “MXE: Milwaukee Mixed” with a wide array of local musicians and Pink’s successful staging of “Peter and The Wolf” with First Stage theater and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Next month, the company will perform Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena,” which fuses Bach, ballet and traditional African dance in a triple bill with premiere works by Italy’s Enrico Morelli and the United Kingdom’s George Williamson. The 49th season ends with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring students from Rolando Yanes’ Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, and Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary score performed live by Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and Florentine Opera artists.
“Our wonderful board members of all of these major groups have come around to the idea that actually it does work to work with other groups,” Pink says. “And it really, truly benefits all of us. More families and businesses are moving to Milwaukee and the surrounding areas. Those children will come to the ballet school, to First Stage, they’ll go to MSO, and their parents will come to performances and get more involved. It pays off for everybody. I hope that this will be a pivotal moment in our city’s history.”
Looking ahead at his company’s leadership, Pink circles back to the idea of family. “Luz is going to take care of the next generation and impart her incredible skills and knowledge and experiences to the next generation,” Pink says of retired leading artist Luz San Miguel, who joined Denis Malinkine as ballet master this season. “Now they’re working with one of the great ballerinas, who grew up here and found her voice here in Milwaukee Ballet. It’s the same with working with Denis. And Tim O’Donnell will segue beautifully into working with me in other capacities when he stops dancing.
“That feels like a logical, natural evolution. That feels like growth.”
Ballet Master Denis Malinkine bears more than just an uncanny physical resemblance to Mikhail Baryshnikov (did you do a double-take?).
Like his countryman, the Russian-born Malinkine brings European elegance, technical excellence and — this part is key — a fearless eye toward the future of his company in the ballet master role.
A graduate of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Malinkine honed his precise technical skills with the Moscow Classical Ballet before joining Britain’s Northern Ballet Theatre (now Northern Ballet). There he created the title role in Michael Pink’s and Christopher Gable’s enduring “Dracula” and began to understand ballet as a true storytelling medium.
The collaboration proved fruitful. Malinkine starred in Atlanta Ballet’s 1999 production of Pink’s “Romeo and Juliet” and from there, the pair’s professional relationship deepened. When Pink arrived at Milwaukee Ballet, he asked his friend and colleague to sign on too. Since then, the pair have partnered on imaginative new Milwaukee Ballet seasons designed to thrill longtime patrons and attract a new generation of ballet-goers who have grown up with YouTube dance stars, dance-competition television series and dance studios in
“I grew up in the older, more traditional ballet, and the traditional way of acting,” Malinkine muses of his and Pink’s collective journey, and the challenge for Pink’s ballet masters to rehearse multiple dancers in the lead roles of Pink’s original ballets. “We had acting classes in school, but it was a very balletic way, like mime. Some audiences want to see that too — I don’t want to dismiss them — and that’s why ballets like ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ exist — because they have certain huge aesthetic values. But, even when other directors re-create Swan Lake, they try to involve more and more acting.”
Malinkine admires Pink’s ability to bridge the gap between spotless technique and absorbing, widely appealing storytelling.
“For us, [an emphasis on acting skills] is to create real theater, where you tell the story and you connect to the audience,” Malinkine continues.“You represent normal life relationships, and they have to look natural so people can relate that to themselves. That’s sometimes tricky, because where do you sacrifice a choreographic part for the drama part? And the opposite. We have to find that
“If you think historically of how ballet developed, it was created during the time when we didn’t have TVs, no radio, et cetera,” says Malinkine, whose wife, Tatiana Jouravel-Malinkine is a Ballet School & Academy teacher. “That was big entertainment for that time. And entertainment mostly for a certain class of people who already know something about ballet, and already have a taste for that. Now you’re competing with all the world and everything has moved on, including acting. It’s a huge difference. I mean, everything moved on. We have to move on too.”
Malinkine is particularily welcoming of the expansive Baumgartner Center’s ability to provide additional practice and performance space — with a specific goal in mind. “We don’t do that many shows here right now,” he says, noting that more performances equate with more comfortable dancers and better word-of-mouth publicity.
“There, we have seven studios, instead of four. So that gives us an extra chance for dancers to perform. It’s just fantastic.”
Director, The Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program and
Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy
Rolando Yanes came to Milwaukee as a worldly, seasoned principal dancer and, to his delight, found a warm and welcoming home.
From1996 to 2001, the Cuban-born Yanes thrilled audiences with his partnering skills and techical precision, then retired to become director of the Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II program. A few years later, the newly arrived Michael Pink offered Yanes the reins of the ballet school too, and Yanes happily settled in.
“When I got to the United States, I didn’t have any family here,” he recalls. “I didn’t speak any English at the time either. The company became part of my family, and I fell in love with the city and with the community, and with how the company works.”
Yanes works closely with Pink to ensure that Pink’s artistic vision is fostered from the ground floor up. “We are speaking only one language,” he says. “ It’s not divided organizations; we’re going in one direction.” And to his ongoing delight, teaching affords him grand “stage moments” year after year.
“I cannot be more proud,” he says, when his students — including current company stars Nicole Teague-Howell, Parker Brasser-Vos, Itzel Hernandez, Isaac Sharratt, Barry Molina, Josiah Cook and Lizzie Tripp —
move up in the company. “As a dancer, you have that moment on the stage and it’s gone. As a teacher, you have that all your life. You see these young dancers doing everything that you ask and getting successful.”
To that end, Yanes cheerfully admits he keeps dancers on their toes in more ways than one, switching up dance styles and exposing students to myriad personalities.“I like to invite choreographers that sometimes are not that easy to work with, because I think [students] need to learn that life is like that,” he says. “That you’re not always going to be working with somebody that’s nice and it’s not always the way that you want, but that you’re learning from everybody.”
Yanes also travels the world, judging dance competitions, scouting new dancers and bringing home new ideas to his students. “It keeps me in contact with what’s going on right now in the dance world, and with the new generation, what are they bringing, what they’re working on outside of the United States,” he says.
Yanes’ eyes twinkle when he considers the additional performance opportunities the Baumgartner Center will afford. “That’s how you make dancers,” he says. “You can be really good in class, but the stage is what makes you really become a great dancer.”
And like his colleagues, Yanes sees the new space as a true testament to the region’s commitment not just to Milwaukee Ballet, but to dance as a whole. “I’ve been here for 23 years, and our community always has supported us,” Yanes says. “Our donors are great people, but what I love is more personal. You know who they are. They are very involved in the organization and they love what we do.”
Harlan Ferstl has, quite literally, been making Milwaukee Ballet look good since the late 1990s. An experienced clothier with a passion for traditional tailoring and modern choreography, the Wisconsin native got his start as a costumer/set designer with Spring Green’s renowned American Players Theater and spent a dozen years with Atlanta’s Alliance Theater before heading back home to see what fate
held next. The ballet came calling.
“I jobbed in for a few years and finally was offered a full-time seasonal position at the ballet in the costume shop around 2001,” Ferstl explains. Where, he admits, he spent a good bit of time adapting to movement-friendly stretch fabrics he rarely encounters in the theater world. “In the ballet world,” Ferstl says, “tailoring is a whole
Still, Ferstl and his colleagues Mary Piering and Lyn Kream relish bringing to life the unfettered imagination displayed by the designers who craft attire for artistic director Michael Pink’s ambitious productions, particularly Pink’s masterful original works. The trio translates sketches into patterns and then mockups — sometimes in a matter of weeks, sometimes over the course of a year or more — offering recommendations as the costumes take shape and amending them further as the dancers don them for rehearsals where unexpected issues can arise. As an example, Ferstl cites the Beast’s massive, flowing cape, designed by Todd Edward Ivins and worn with panache by dancers Patrick Howell and Isaac Sharratt in Pink’s 2018 world premiere of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“That was a whole discovery process of how to keep that shape, but not make the cape too heavy,” Ferstl recalls. “I lined it for rehearsal in the studios, but Michael said it killed the movement of the cape itself. So we cut the lining and then it was just a matter of allowing the dancers to work with it. That cape just wowed a ton of people.”
Knowing Pink’s original works will see multiple stagings and encores, with different dancers in each role, Ferstl says the costumers “try to build in alterability, especially so we can make them bigger or smaller. Taller or shorter can be an issue, but in the dance world, sizes aren’t as variant as they can be in the theater world when you’re trying to refit something to another body. So we have that luxury, in a sense, that there isn’t that huge a difference in body sizes.”
Asked what he loves most about his job, Ferstl doesn’t hesitate. “In addition to being able to create these things, I have that one-on-one experience with the person I’m dealing with, to make sure that they’re happy,” he says. “I can’t think of anything better. All of our work is custom. It’s one of the few places that that still happens. It’s hands-on every day, and every year is something different. ”
Leading Artist, Resident Choreographer
For Timothy O’Donnell, the idea of dance as a tool for universal communication is, well, everything.
It’s what brought the 33-year-old Australian to Milwaukee Ballet in 2009, hand-picked by Michael Pink as the youngest-ever entrant (and eventual winner) of “Genesis,” the company’s biennial, international choreography competition. And it’s what brought O’Donnell back to stay, when a return visit helped him realize that Pink’s vision of a whole-cloth company over star-and-ensemble — and his passion for producing work that affords dancers a broad range of creative expression — closely matched O’Donnell’s own.
“Working for Michael Pink is the ultimate dream,” O’Donnell says, “because he delves so much further into what this career is about, and what we are actually doing. We’re not just up there to execute a series of steps; we’re up there to tell stories, to make people feel things, to educate people — and his passion for that is really infectious.”
O’Donnell’s own creations explore intensely emotional, but highly relatable ideas — rigid notions of masculinity, unattainable beauty standards, true human connection in a digital age. Ideas he hopes will lure dance novices to attend a show or two and, perhaps, find a much more appealing and accessible idea of ballet than they’d imagined.
“One of the big problems that’s facing dance as an art form is that people don’t necessarily feel comfortable walking into a theater environment,” O’Donnell explains. “They don’t know how they’re supposed to behave — ‘Am I meant to dress to the nines? When am I supposed to clap?’ It creates this world that if you haven’t been brought up in it, you feel like you don’t belong.”
Instead, O’Donnell offers this new approach to dabbling
“Dance is very much like art in an art gallery, insofar that you can tell a story, convey an idea — but the actual message is very much left to the people who are viewing it,” O’Donnell says. “I don’t go to the gallery and like everything, but at the gallery that’s fine because you don’t feel like you have to give anything back to that painting. Dance is very personal to the audience members, which is what I think makes dance as an art form and as a platform to express an idea so special. It’s this tiny moment we’re sharing in this really intimate environment. And Michael’s stuff is so amazing for the audience because it’s immersive and it’s dramatic.”
And, O’Donnell adds, it benefits dancers too, as the staunchest classical ballet devotees embrace neo-classical and contemporary works.
“We’re so diverse here, and Michael has pushed for this company to do things that range in every direction, and as far as we can push things,” O’Donnell explains. “Some [dancers] have come from a much stricter background, so it’s really great watching their first three years in the company. At first they have a year of horror where they feel like they’ve never danced before. And then suddenly they get more and more into it and there’s that confidence built. And then they discover things they didn’t even know they were so passionate about. The way Michael takes a story and can break it apart into its pieces and then put it back together, I’ve never worked with anyone remotely close to the intellect he has when he’s creating
his works.” MKE